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Cars (Import And Export)

Volume 165: debated on Wednesday 17 January 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry how many cars were imported into the United Kingdom in 1988; and how many were exported.

A total of 1·357 million cars were imported and 261,000 exported in the period under review.

Does the Minister agree that those figures are appalling and that they are 27 per cent. worse than when the Government took office? When will the Government get tough, in the same way as the Governments of France, Italy and the USA, against the Japanese imports that pour into this country? Why do we give subsidies to Nissan and allow Toyota to come here to Derby to steal the skilled labour force at Rolls-Royce—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Of course that happens, that is why Toyota came—to take the skilled labour force at Rolls-Royce. Why do the Government have a policy of selling off Austin Rover at rock bottom prices to British Aerospace and of using the car industry for the profits of their friends? Why can we not have the same sort of restrictions that we have for farming? Why will the Government invest in and protect farming, but not do the same for manufacturing industry?

The Labour party, in power between 1974 and 1979, presided over a massive increase in import penetration of cars into this country from 27·9 per cent. to 56·3 per cent. Under the Conservative Government, import penetration has stayed around the 56 or 57 per cent. mark. The Government's policies have seen a remarkable influx of inward investment by three leading Japanese car producers and we are on target for a major expansion of car production in this country. We may well see it expand in this decade from 1·3 million cars to around 2 million cars. That is the best answer of all to the hon. Gentleman's question. Our economic policies are working and Conservative Members welcome the new investment from Japanese companies because they have skills and jobs to offer us.

To what extent does my hon. Friend estimate that the decline in the British car industry was due to the actions of the trade unions, which refused to accept new industrial practices and favoured restrictive practices, go-slows and strikes? To what extent does he think that the Japanese decided to invest in this country because we have a Government who believe in private enterprise and the open market?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. However, the trade unions were aided and abetted in their destructive policies in the 1970s by wrongful Government policies as well, which gave exactly the wrong signals to the car industry. The 1980s have proved much better and we now have a firm base of sounder industrial relations as a result of the new labour relations law, which has proved attractive to inward investors.

Does not the Minister accept that the consumer faces a problem nowadays because the brand names no longer state clearly whether the cars are made in Britain? Nissan cars are made in Newcastle, Peugeot in Coventry and Ford cars are possibly made in Spain or in West Germany. Will he encourage the manufacturers that wish to promote British goods to put the necessary stickers on their windscreens?

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman and his party—whatever it may be called—welcomed the integration of the European market. It has long been the case that various manufacturers that assemble in the United Kingdom also import components for their cars, and sometimes whole vehicles. It makes sense for a company such as Ford to choose where to produce in the European Community. We obviously welcome more investment from that company and expansion of the car lines that it thinks are best suited for this country.

Does my hon. Friend accept that over the years many of us have fought the importation of cars, especially from the Japanese, who would not allow our exports into their country? However, if we continue with what looks like happening now, when the Ford workers here are demanding a 14 per cent. increase, compared with the Ford workers in West Germany who have accepted 3 per cent. with much greater productivity, many of us who have said that we should not allow car imports must recognise that the British people have a right to buy cars and that if the Ford workers in the United Kingdom will not work, the British people should still be able to buy cars that might mean more imports and lost British jobs.

My hon. Friend speaks from experience. He is right that it is in the hands of Ford managers and workers to set the right level of pay in relation to output and productivity. I hope that they can settle on a good level of pay, which reflects the underlying improvement in productivity. That is the way to protect and expand jobs and to give the customer a good deal.

How does the Minister square his previous comments on the supposed recovery of the British car industry with the trade deficit in automotive products of £6·5 billion for the first 11 months of this year? Does he accept that the principal cause is that cars such as Vauxhalls and Fords are stuffed with components made in Europe? Is he prepared to open talks with companies such as Ford and Vauxhall and to insist that they increase the sourcing of components from the United Kingdom?

I want companies here to make the best commercial decisions. That is the way to secure jobs and a good package for the costomer. The hon. Gentleman should note that several major investments in British components manufacturing have been announced as a result of our success in attracting assemblers and new car production. The important point about the 1980s is that import penetration did not rise, but the total market expanded. That is why we have imported more cars. People are better off under a Conservative Government and they choose to use their purchasing power to buy new cars.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extraordinary and appalling that Opposition Members do nothing but criticise and knock the car industry although there is good news on the horizon? Was not the only contribution that we ever had from that lot, the £400 million investment in Dundee being stopped by their paymasters in the Transport and General Workers Union? Is it not the case that, as a result of inward investment by Japanese car manufacturers, there will be a massive increase in car exports from Britain in coming years? Does my hon. Friend agree that there is now a serious threat from eastern Europe and that we must ensure that the economic and industrial conditions here remain attractive to those who wish to invest in this country?

That was a long question and it leads to a long answer, which is problem.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the trade unions have a role to play in helping, rather than hindering, inward investment in Britain. I agree that the industry should remain competitive. I am not surprised at the attitude of the Labour party. It belongs to the wining and dining school where wining is spelt with an "h". It believes that it should issue lunchtime directives to car companies. When it tried that policy in Government, it met with disaster.